An absolute must while in Siem Reap, Cambodia aka The Kingdom of Wonder is a tuk-tuk tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat. There are many ways to visit the world’s largest religious monument. Most organized tour groups, such as the one I went on with Urban Adventures, stick to the small circuit loop of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. When you hire a private tuk-tuk driver for the day you’ll have the flexibility to see smaller lesser-visited temples.
The serene environment among the ancient buildings will allow you the chance to transport back into the glory days of the Khmer Kingdom. You can also get around on a bicycle, but this should be avoided during the scorching summer months as the Angkor Wat complex is massive.
If you have a couple of days get one of the multi-day Angkor Passes. The gigantic complex is impossible to visit thoroughly in just a day. After a day of walking around the historic buildings in the extreme heat, you’re likely to get exhausted. Break up your visit into a day for the small loop and sunset and then a day for sunrise and lesser-visited temple explorations.
The Angkor Pass is only available for purchase at the official ticket center so don’t get tricked into buying it online. The ticket window opens at 4:30 AM for those who want to see the sunrise. It closes up by 5:30 PM every day. You can buy your ticket after 5 pm for the next day and go into the archeological site to see the sunset. A one-day Angkor Pass is $37 USD, a three-day pass (valid for 10 days) is $62, and a seven-day pass (valid for 30 days) is $72.
I visited Angkor Wat many times but opted to do a bespoke tour with Tuk-Tuk Lady in Siem Reap, Kim. Kim was Cambodia’s first lady tuk-tuk driver. By hiring Kim, who has the same rate as all other tuk-tuk drivers who do tours of Angkor Wat, $20. Kim’s service is above and beyond though as she provides cold towels, a clean tuk-tuk, and is a very safe driver. I was even gifted with a beautiful scarf and a warm embrace at the end of my tour. Kim is incredibly knowledgable about Siem Reap and current events in Cambodia. If you want to understand how politics work in the country, she’s the woman to speak with.
Kim taught herself English and works hard in order to be able to provide for her two young children. She’s a single mother and one of her children is deaf. Her utter drive to take care of her children is what gave her the encouragement to become Cambodia’s first lady tuk-tuk driver. Today, she’s beloved by everyone who has had the chance to go on a tour with her and owns her tuk-tuk carriage and motorbike. Hiring Kim helps keep money in the local economy and empower women.
Angkor Wat translates to city of temples and there are about 100 temples that can be visited but I relied on Kim’s expertise about which one I shouldn’t miss. We started the morning before dawn in order to see the sunrise in all its glory behind the iconic Angkor Wat. After I consulted with Kim about the temples I knew I wanted to see as well as asking her about her favorite spots. I loved having the ability to customize an itinerary.
The Angkor Wat complex opens at 5 AM. Arrive as early as possible in order to get a comfortable spot by the ponds if you wish to get a reflection shot of the temple during sunrise. The crowd here gets quite hectic, which is a shame for such a peaceful place, I even saw someone shove someone’s tripod into the water — you’ve been warned.
After the sunrise, I went back into the Angkor Wat temple to visit the chamber of dreams again to make a wish. I wanted to climb the towers to the 3rd level as there hadn’t been time to do so during my tour with Urban Adventures. Unfortunately, they were closed. Learn from my mistake — the towers are closed during Buddhist holidays, such as the new moon and full moon so plan accordingly.
I absolutely fell in love with the trees that are taking over the ruins of the small 12th-century Buddhist Ta Som (GoogleMaps) temple. Be sure to walk through all the corridors to take a look at the unique intricate carvings on your way to the back gate and pay notice to the lotus structures on the roof. Ta Som’s back gate, or gopura, has been taken over by the roots of an overgrown fig tree and other vivacious vegetation. King Jayavarman VII built the temple and dedicated it to his father, Dharanindravarman II who ruled the Khmer Empire from 1150 to 1160.
Pre Rup (GoogleMaps) is was once a grand Hindu temple-mountain with ornate carvings. It’s thought that this was once the location for funeral processions as Pre Rup means turning the body. The remaining structure today has steep steps which can still be climbed for scenic 360° views of the temple valley — it’s a popular spot for sunset.
Eastern Mebon (GoogleMaps) is a 10th-century Hindu temple which was once surrounded by a moat of water so that it could only be accessed by boat. The temple has elephant statues standing guard at the corners as well as many other intricate carvings in sandstone towers.
Banteay Samre (GoogleMaps) was one of my favorite complexes around Angkor Wat. The details here are unparalleled and have lasted the test of time since the 1100s. The architecture of the Hindu temple is somewhat similar to the style which can be seen at Angkor Wat.
Another Hindu temple-mountain is Ta Keo (GoogleMaps). The sacred structure was never completed. Some believe the construction ceased after lightning struck the site as a warning not to continue, while others speculate that the building stopped when King Jayavarman V died.
The name Prasat Kravan (GoogleMaps) derives from the ancient Pali language and means castle, palace, or temple. This small structure is believed to have been erected for the Hindu God Vishnu. Inside are gorgeous bas reliefs which were carved into brick walls, some of which have been restored to their original glory.
Neak Pean (GoogleMaps) is a small Buddhist temple afloat on an artificial island. The structure is lovely, but not nearly as impressive as the other buildings in Angkor Wat. What makes Neak Pean worth visiting is the gorgeous lake you cross on a long boardwalk before reaching it. After a hot day in the sun, it is a relief to see water and nature.
Thommanon (GoogleMaps) and Chau Say Thevoda (Google Maps) are a pair of Hindu temples that were created during the reign of King Suryavarman II. The temples are small yet intricate. They’re hardly visited and have a very calm ambiance as the jungle surrounds both structures.
These are just a tiny sampling of all of the many temples you can visit. I hoped to see many more but was absolutely beat after a full day in the sun exploring Angkor Wat on a tuk-tuk tour. I’d like to go back to see Western Mebon and the reclining Buddha at the pyramid-like Baphuon one day.
Kim does more than just tuk-tuk tour of Angkor Wat, she also can do Siem Reap city tours and to surrounding villages. When she isn’t with a client you can find her stationed outside of Shinta Mani Shack Boutique Resort or e-mail her directly to book: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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